Tired of being slaughtered like sheep and chased from a place they have called home for two millennia, some Christian groups in northern Iraq have decided to take up arms to defend their place in the war-torn country from the terror of ISIS.
Henry Sarkis, 44, an official with the Assyrian Patriotic Party which is one of several Assyrian political organizations in Iraq, told National Geographic that his party has armed and dispatched 40 of its members to join the Kurdish Peshmerga, the official security force of the Kurdistan Regional Government, in fighting ISIS in Iraq’s northwest.
ISIS militants are using mines and IEDs to stop Peshmerga forces trying to flush them from the area, according to The Wall Street Journal’s Tamer El-Ghobashy.
The last time Christians took up arms in Iraq was when they fought briefly alongside the Kurds against Saddam Hussein.
“We keep talking about Jesus and peace, and now we’ve reached the point where it’s not enough,” Sarkis told National Geographic from his party’s headquarters in Dahuk, Iraq. “The age of waiting for the Peshmerga to take back territory while we sit is over. We took the decision that, with our limited abilities, we will try to participate.”
Sarkis says the mostly symbolic move is the “first wave,” and the group of Christian fighters have taken on the name Dukha, which means “sacrifice” in Assyrian.
His party, says Sarkis, bought weapons with money donated by members in the diaspora and they are looking to raise more money to get more arms. Their main focus in the fight, he says, is to secure territory as the Peshmerga advances against ISIS.
Christians taking up arms in Iraq stands in stark contrast to the passive victim profile they have been known for since 2003 and is likely to make them more of a target. Sarkis, however, isn’t worried as he believes embracing a fighting life is much better than accepting a passive death.
“We’re being killed in our homes, so why not defend ourselves? Then even if we die, we die with dignity,” he said. “We didn’t want to reach this point — we just want to live in our areas.”
Christians make up less than 1 percent of Iraq’s population, according to the CIA, and their numbers have dwindled from about 1.5 million in 2003 to less than 500,000 today.
In Mosul, which was overrun by ISIS militants in June, Duraid Tobiya, 53, an Assyrian from the city said about 40 of the 8,000 to 10,000 Christians that once lived there still remain. And those that remain barely count. ISIS militants exempted them from an edict to convert to Islam, pay a tax or die after they were found to be too sick, too old or too poor to obey the order.
“I’m from Mosul — this is the first time I’ve been displaced,” said Tobiya. “I lived through everything else that happened in Mosul, but it’s all very different from what’s happening now.”
Tobiya has no faith in the Peshmerga or the Iraqi Army to protect Christians from ISIS because both forces once abandoned their duty to protect Christians and other minorities from ISIS attacks.
He now only sees two options to the problems Christians face in Iraq: “Either mass emigration or an internationally protected safe zone. We have no other options. We are against emigration, because we are not only the sons of this country but its original inhabitants.”